Sunday, 2 December 2007

We did not hear the call to prayer this morning, the walls of this riad must be very thick. We heard nothing all night long and slept well. We went in to check on the kids, and found Nate reading Harry Potter while Benji and Alayna were playing with legos and the tiny sugar ants that scurried across their floor. Alayna would trap them with her rubber bracelet and then pick them up and coo at them. “They don’t bite,” she informed us. We’ll have to add them to the list of short-term pets we’ve played with on the trip, from Percy the caterpillar back in Oslo, to the numerous cats and kittens we’ve met along the way.

After breakfast we met Mustafa and a local guide to see some of the sights of the city. The most interesting was the Badia Palace. The guide said, “Morocco is like a veiled woman, you must lift her veil to see her beauty.” I thought that really captured what it looks like, with plain adobe walls all around, but lush courtyards once you get inside. It had the typical green tile roof, cedar ceilings (they use cedar because it is easy to carve, then becomes very hard, and is moth-resistant), carved plaster, marble, and tile mosaics. He said Morocco once traded salt for marble, and sugar for gold. He said it was a good trade, because the salt and sugar were consumed, but the marble and gold remain.

The best sights in Morocco are in the street, alive with activity. We saw a woman holding a dead chicken by the feet, its head flopping every which way. Small children riding on the backs of motorbikes that weave in and out of cars, raw meat hanging from shop awnings, and donkeys pulling carts next to busses full of people. All around us was construction, new buildings are being built everywhere. Many women don’t wear the traditional haik and veil. We saw many more Westerners here than in other parts of Morocco. It’s easy to see that things are changing quickly here and are sure it will look very different a few years from now. We are happy to see what we can of the city before it changes any more.

We went to a few more sights, including the famous Djemaa el-Fna square, which was full of snake charmers, singers, men holding monkeys with collars around their necks (eager to accept a few dirhams in exchange for a picture), fortune tellers, and people selling all sorts of things. We’ve heard the action gets even crazier at dusk, and we plan to return tomorrow night to check it all out beneath the Moroccan moon. Today, we opted to go back to the hotel for lunch and rest. We had a late night ahead of us.

Mustafa picked us up at 8 to take us to a special dinner and show called The Fantasia. He had brought his three year old son along. His name is Adam, and he rode in the front seat next to his dad while we drove to the show. He was really cute, falling asleep with his head propped up on the window, staring out. Mustafa brought him so he could see the camels and horses that are hanging out before the show, and all the kids got a quick camel ride before dinner.

We had heard that a “sense of the absurd” is required to really appreciate all the entertainment involved. We ate in tents surrounding a big arena, and while we dined on the traditional tagine chicken and couscous, followed by mint tea and oranges, different performers came in. They represented different Berber tribes, their costumes and songs. Some of them shook their hips like belly dancers, and others held hands while they sang in a high-pitched, nasally voice that seems to be common among many of the tribes. The tried to lure the kids to dance with them, but they wanted no part of it. The first group managed to get Alayna to stand up, but all she stood was stand there and blush and wish she could disappear for a while.

After dinner we got seats around the arena for the big show. There were horsemen who did tricks while speeding past on their Arabian and Berber horses, and several times a whole line of them thundered across the expanse, firing their guns with a loud boom and lots of fanfare. These were all pretty impressive, accompanied by Arabic music from speakers nearby. Then there was the absurd. A cheesy flying carpet slowly crept across the sky on a wire, the Star Wars theme came blaring out of the speakers at one point, and the show ended with everyone in the arena, from the folksingers to the horses, walking from one end to the other while “I Will Survive” by Donna Summer played from the speakers. A little strange, but entertaining.

Something funny happened on the way out. Clay took the boys to the bathroom, and Benji was in a stall peeing when a man walked in, opened the door to Benji’s stall, and began to pee, not noticing that he squashed Benji behind the door. Clay was washing his hands and looked up just as the man burst into the stall, wondered where Benji was, and rescued him from behind the door where he was flattened. The man, who was smoking a cigarette with one hand, didn’t seem at all phased, just muttered “sorry” and went about his business.

The show was fun for the kids and Clay and I got a kick out of it, too. It was a late night, though, we didn’t get back to the hotel until midnight and everyone was pooped. Tomorrow we plan to do some chores, laundry and post office, then check out the medina on our own.


Monday, 3 December 2007

This morning the kids played legos and hide and go seek before we took off to get some chores out of the way. After laundry and the post office, we set out for the medina, where we walked through the souks, skinny streets lined with shops. The motorbikes are a real hazard, they come zipping up behind you so fast, and the electric ones are so quiet you don’t even hear them coming. That, along with the carts pulled by donkeys, kept us hugging the sides of the streets and the kids stayed close. The dirt streets, smoky grills, and motorbike fumes made a haze that sunlight filtered through, adding to the general chaos all around.

The colors everywhere were brilliant, some souks sold leather slippers in all colors, others sold scarves or jellabas, others sold spices. You could buy a hunk of camel meat, jewelry, a purse, anything. We managed to make our way through without acquiring anything other than what we had come for, scarves for Benji and Alayna to wear as turbans, like the one Nate got. Clay haggled this time, chastising us when we messed up his cool façade, urging him to go a little higher.

The experience was different from what we’ve experiences elsewhere in Morocco. This was one of the few times we were on our own with no guide leading us through the streets, and I think in some ways we were less of a target. We weren’t hassled that much, because we don’t look like we have any money. Someone with a guide taking them through, they have money. In our grubby travel clothes, my overstuffed purse with Kleenexes falling out the side, and our grimy shoes (Clay’s have a lettuce stain on them that is very bothersome), we just didn’t look like anyone to spend much time on. That was just fine with us. We could peek into stores and then politely say “la shukran” when invited inside, “For free today, just to look, no buy, just look.” La shukran means “No, thank you”, and we have all learned how to say it, with gusto.

We got a little lost, narrowly missed being run over several times, and possibly offended various people by saying “la shukran” before they ever asked if we wanted to buy something. Clay informed the kids that he would be telling little white lies like “I already have one of those”. We passed kids on their way home from school, food that smelled wonderful but we didn’t dare eat, and shop after shop. These tiny stores were crammed with things, in spaces no bigger than my closet back home. I found the whole experience exciting and bewildering but no longer intimidating, after tackling the medina in Fes and various rug/leather/pottery/fossil/brass plate vendors across the country.

We ate lunch overlooking the Djemaa el-Fna square, a reedy instrument blaring down below where all sorts of dried fruits and spices were being sold off carts. Donkeys came by every now and then, pulling carts loaded high with baskets, looking too impossibly big for a donkey to carry. We came back to the hotel again, to let the kids play before heading out again to the square for one last look at night, when things get hopping.

Walking to the square at night was a harrowing experience. It was about a twenty minute walk from our hotel, and would have been fine if we didn’t have to cross the street several times. There are no crosswalks in Marrakesh, so you just pick a place and dive across the lanes of speeding cars, trucks, mopeds and bicycles. Clay would grab Nate’s hand, say “Let’s go,” and he’d be across stopping every now and then to let mopeds and cars pass on both sides, but I always hesitated. Alayna would opt to stay behind with me. I would clutch Benji’s hand, take a step, then step back. Try again, step back. Eventually, I’d wait for a hooded figure nearby, a local, to cross, and follow like a shadow.

We finally made it to the square, alive but a little rattled. It looked very different in the dark, we could hear the drums and see some fires as we approached. Gone were the snake charmers and monkey handlers that were there during the day. Instead, large groups of people gathered around men who told stories around fires spaced around the square. Pushy henna girls offered to draw designs on our hands, when I refused one girl actually grabbed my hand and started drawing anyway. I pulled away and told her “No!”, she turned on her heel in a huff. Clay suggested next time I whip out my sharpie marker, scribble on her, and then demand 100 dirhams for my handiwork.

We pushed our way farther into the crowd, pointing out a nearby police station our kids should meet us at if we got separated. Benji held my hand very tight. On the fringe long lines of picnic tables were set up under lighted tents, and food vendors cooked up couscous, tagine chicken, and more exotic items like boiled sheep’s head. We never actually saw them, too bad because we were hoping for a picture, but later Mustafa assured us these are a common delicacy in the square. Men stood in front of their tents, trying to lure us closer to come join them for dinner, but we already had dinner plans at a restaurant Mustafa had recommended.

Dinner was good, followed by some interesting music by a ten-stringed guitar and small drum. A belly dancer followed, and we all tried to look anywhere but at this woman, prancing around in her bikini top and skirt slit up to her hip. Alayna looked at me like, “Oh my gosh, can you believe what she’s wearing?” and Nate’s eyes were very wide. Benji was asleep on my lap at this point, so at least we only had two children being scarred for life. At one point, this scantily clad woman began to vibrate from the hips down, and she became blurry she went so fast. That was about the only impressive thing about her little performance, we all breathed a sigh of relief when she slinked back through the curtains.

Mustafa invited us to join him and his family for a small lunch at his house before we head to the airport tomorrow. We were so excited, we’ve invited him on several occasions to join us for meals while driving across the country, and he always declined. To be invited to his house, to get to see a real Moroccan home and meet his family (a three and half year old boy, and a three month old baby), is more than we had hoped for, we were thrilled.

We got the kids to bed, brushing their teeth with bottled water. This is finally becoming a little more routine, I am the sink nazi, yanking back anyone who ventures a sip from the spigot. It took a while to get used to spitting dry, and then sipping from a bottle of water, but it will be a necessary skill for the next few months. Clay and I curled up to watch a movie on Clay’s computer after getting the kids to bed, a DVD we borrowed from the hotel. The DVD had obviously been pirated, it was kind of weird to find something like that in this nicest of nice riads. The pillows were soft, the time was late, and I barely made it to the end of Bourne Supremacy. Spies, car chases and rooftop pursuits were not enough to keep me from sleeping through the night with nary a dream ‘till morning.


Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Today is our last day in Marrakesh, we fly out at 6:40 tonight. We woke up thinking about our meal with Mustafa and his family. The kids began making things to give Adam. Alayna made a tiny soccer ball and ramp out of clay, Nate drew a picture of a van with Mustafa driving and cut it out, and Benji drew a very interesting picture where Mustafa and his two children were cloud pictures, and we were down below looking up at them. The previous day they had presented Mustafa with letters and pictures thanking him for driving them across the country, and I think he really liked them.

We didn’t have to check out of the hotel until noon, so we had plenty of time to pack and spend a nice, lazy morning in the riad. We explored it all over one last time, going up to the roof and looking over the edge to watch the market beneath us. People milled all around, while vendors sold fruits, vegetables, fish, cloth, and more. It was fun to watch all the action with a bird’s eye view. I went to the front desk and asked if they could tell me where I might buy some flowers, I thought it might be nice to bring them to Mustafa’s wife to thank her for cooking our lunch. They said no problem, they could order them and have them delivered. “Something small” I told them, “something to put in the middle of the table.” The price was right, and I was happy we wouldn’t be arriving empty handed.

The flowers arrived, much bigger than I had expected. I was a little embarrassed by this massive bouquet, when I held it you couldn’t see my face, a pyramid of white and red roses, capped by a single pink one on top. Mustafa smiled and shook his head when he saw it, “You didn’t have to do that,” he grinned. When we got in the car, his son Adam was curled up on the floorboard beside him. He was shy, and would only venture a glance to the back seat every once in a while. We arrived, the kids were kissed on both cheeks by Mustafa’s wife Noel, mother-in-law, and brother, and I handed over the giant bouquet which was admired and put aside (thankfully not in the middle of the table, we wouldn’t have been able to see each other).

They all live together, in a pinkish-orange house among a sea of other pinkish-orange houses, the color of Marrakesh. A small courtyard was veiled by thin drapes, where laundry hung to dry and toys were sprinkled around, a place for Adam to play. The walls had no pictures other than one of the Quran, and one over the doorway of Adam when he was little, the spitting image of his little brother. I spied a small kitchen as we walked into their living room, a few burners and little counter space, but enough to cook the massive feast we were soon to encounter.

We were seated on green couches, which were actually like benches built along the walls, with green cushions and pillows. The “small” lunch included a Moroccan salad of diced tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, followed by a tagine full of kefta, a sort of meatball in tomato sauce. We stuffed ourselves on this along with fresh khoobz bread, and were shocked when a huge platter of couscous arrived with tender chicken and vegetables on top. All of this had been prepared in the kitchen in the next room, and while I desperately tried to offer my help, they would have no part in it.

Our stomachs were bursting when they brought out the plate full of oranges, bananas and apples, and this was followed by a plate of almond cookies and mint tea. I actually poured the tea, and Mustafa gave me directions on the correct way. The reason Moroccans pour their tea from such a great distance from the cup is to test how good the tea is. A good mint tea will form foam on top when poured, and will keep the foam. This was good mint tea.

Adam eventually lost his shyness, and the boys ran outside to play with a soccer ball while we munched on the fruit and cookies and sipped our tea. The baby, Ilyas (said “ee-lias”) was a chubby little guy with big cheeks, dark brown eyes, a good temper, and a quick smile. Alayna hung around, finally getting her chance to hold Ilyas for a little while. Mustafa and his brother spoke English well, while his wife and mother-in-law spoke very little, but babies are universal and we all coo’d and admired little Ilyas and his charming baby ways.

The lunch was big enough to last us through dinner, we’d have no trouble being hungry at the airport later, but more than the lunch we appreciated their willingness to welcome us into their home and lives for an afternoon. We took a big “family” picture on the couch before we left for the airport, realizing we may never see these faces in the street again. We asked if they might ever come to Texas someday. “Enshallah,” said Mustafa. “God willing.”

Adam came with us to the airport, and the kids gave each other rides on the baggage carts while Mustafa accompanied us to the passport gate. We said our goodbyes, the kids each got a kiss on the cheek, and Nate got a big hug to boot. He is a hugging kind of boy. We will miss Mustafa, and look forward to the faces we’ll meet come morning time. We’ve got a night on the plane ahead of us, and while I type this journal entry at a table in the airport, Clay is reading Egyptian history on his phone, and the kids are slowly working themselves into comas with their Nintendo DS games. There is a time and a place for playing those games, which irritate the heck out of me with their mind-numbing abilities. This is the time and the place, and I hope they’ll slide right into sleep once we board our plane at 11pm.

We loved our time in Morocco. The desert, the ancient medinas, and most of all the friendly people. We hope to return again someday, and explore it even more. Enshallah. God willing.